It’s strange, but conventional thinking that “bigger is better” or having a device be “feature rich” automatically translate into a better experience doesn’t really work for eReaders. Trying to find this level of Goldilocks perfection can be daunting, but few companies are more willing to mess with norms than Rakuten’s Kobo eReaders. Not only has this help set them apart from the pack, it’s kept them alive as nearly every other dedicated eReader company has disappeared from the landscape.
They’ve been on the forefront of eReader design from the beginning, helping make now-familiar features like waterproofing, backlighting and digital library compatibility stock long before their competition. They’ve also been willing to experiment with varying screen sizes, body styles and interactive features; sometimes this experimentation pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. Last year’s marquee reader, the Kobo Forma, with its bigger screen (and even bigger price-tag) was clearly in the latter.
Honestly, I never found the Kobo Forma that comfortable, both in use and design. The screen was too big, the performance sluggish or non-responsive, and that price…yikes. Just about every advantage an underdog company like Kobo needs to wage a David vs. Goliath battle against the industry leader Amazon was sacrificed with the Forma and the results weren’t impressive. They were often downright unpleasant, honestly.
With this year’s Libra H20, however, Kobo has hit a real breakthrough, an ideal compromise on price and performance that doesn’t feel like a compromise. I’ll just come right out and say it: the Libra H20 eReader isn’t just the best and more enjoyable Kobo reader I’ve ever used, it’s one of the best eReaders I’ve ever used – period. I realize that’s a short list, but we single-use device fans know a good thing when we see it.
From a purely aesthetic and functional standpoint the Libra H20 isn’t just competing against the Forma, but also against Amazon’s trio of killer eReader options, namely the cheaper Kindle, the current champ Kindle Paperwhite, and the considerably more expensive Kindle Oasis. And just like our curly-haired heroine yearning for that tasty bowl of perfect porridge, sometimes going with the middle option is just right.
Design: The eReader Sweet Spot
The Kobo Libra looks familiar, yet still features several key differences from previous models. It retains the basic asymmetrical slanted design of the Forma, just in a smaller and more comfy body. This means the same tapering edge that helps distribute the device’s heft if you prefer one-handed reading. Results will vary, of course, but the Libra’s smaller body does a great job balancing comfort with form factor. At 6.2″ x 5.6″ x .19″ it’s smaller than the Forma, though at 6.8oz it’s not much lighter – yet somehow still feels lighter.
The 7” screen is recessed slightly and not flush with the flat body, which is plastic with a speckled texture on the back that helps distinguish it from Amazon’s more industrial look and style. It feels incredibly comfortable to hold for long periods. It also comes in both white and black colors; I like it a lot.
That tapered bump hosts the Libra’s 1200 mAh Lithium battery, adding slightly to the weight but adding hours upon hours of reading time. Estimates will vary, but during my week-long testing period (to which the Libra was in constant use) I never had to recharge the unit once.
Like the Forma the Libra also features two page-turn buttons; unlike the Forma, however, they are totally separate and not one elongated “rocker” layer. This small change turns out to be a big improvement in both looks and function as I found quick presses and taps more precise and less “mushy” thanks to their smaller footprint. Your mileage with physical buttons will vary, but I found myself using them more often than I’d like to admit. They can also be inverted if you want or turned off completely. The most thankful design improvement is the power/standby button, now a small circular button, which has migrated to the back of the unit where it belongs.
The Libra H20’s 7” screen is slightly smaller than the Forma’s huge 8” screen with a resolution outputs of 1680 × 1264 resolution at 300 PPI, which is larger and with more pixel density than most stock 6” screens found on Kindles. This translates into incredibly sharp text that scales up nicely and is easy to read at any angle. Touch inputs are fast and responsive and pages turn with a quick tap (or physical button press). There’s nothing particularly distinguishing about the E Ink Carta display, which is plastic but clean and visible, though I’d still opt for the protective cover.
Under The Hood: Something Old, Something New
Take a peek inside the Kobo Libra and – if you’re part of the Kobo faithful – you’ll notice a few similarities to its predecessor, the Kobo Forma. The Libra uses the same 1 GHZ NXP i.MX6 Solo Lite processor from Freescale/NXP, the same 512MB RAM and same 8GB available storage for all those books (unlike the Forma, however, there’s no 32GB variant for power users). Once again, all connectivity is handled via WiFi 802.11 b/g/n wireless or by directly connecting a micro USB cable. There’s no external storage options for SD or microSD cards, so better manage that internal memory wisely.
Like the Forma there’s a built-in sensor that can automatically rotate the screen from portrait to landscape orientation, or lock it to either. This time around rotating is lightning fast and a lot more pleasant, especially as it no longer freezes the device when attempting to reorient. That’s important.
Usually, the tech powering an e-reader can be the least interesting thing to talk about, but that Kobo decided to recycle the Forma’s innards for a smaller, lighter device becomes critical as this translates into a much faster, much more enjoyable reading experience in every way. I’m actually a little shocked (and amazed) at how well the Libra performs compared to not just pricier Kobo readers but to Amazon’s pricier Kindles as well.
Kobo Store and Compatibility
Any time we talk about Kobo’s proprietary software, and by extension its online digital store, it always feels like a list of caveats. You’re able to do this, but… You can find most books, but… It doesn’t seem fair to either the Kobo itself or to readers who might be genuinely interested in a Kobo reader versus Amazon’s Kindle. And yet, it’s difficult to talk about what the Kobo has and what it doesn’t without mentioning Amazon.
So let’s just those caveats out of the way early: with the Kobo Libra, or any Kobo e-reader, you won’t have direct access to any of Amazon’s digital storefronts, its massive Kindle library, or any titles and/or downloads exclusive to Jeff Bezos’ near-monopolistic empire. For some of you this will be a bridge too far, and that cannot be helped.
Instead, let’s talk about what you can do with a Kobo, and what you can download and read. It’s still a lot, probably much more than you’ll ever be able to read, honestly. Kobo’s digital store is a huge warehouse of pretty much everything you’ll ever want as far as mainstream titles go, which includes new fiction, non-fiction, comics, graphic novels and more. Prices are mostly reasonable, though usually a bit higher than Amazon (and on par with Apple’s books). Also, you can sync up your library across compatible devices and – unlike mega-giant Microsoft’s aborted book service – you can feel comfortable knowing your digital purchases aren’t going anywhere.
Another killer Kobo feature nobody really talks about (but should) is the Walmart connection. Yes, Walmart, the world’s biggest physical retail chain. Kobo has partnered with them to make buying digital books while shopping for groceries and HDTVs easier than ever. Next time you’re cruising Wallyworld’s aisles check out the book section if you’re in need of a quick reading fix – its easy to buy and redeem those physical cards and add them to your digital library.
Also, Kobo readers have gained a solid reputation for being excellent manga (Japanese comics), and that remains true here. Unlike Western comics, which are usually digitally colored, manga’s (mostly) black ‘n white rendering typically looks great on the smaller screen. The sheer number of file formats available – see below – make the Libra a virtual manga wunderkind, just as long as you’re okay with the occasional screen stutter as images load and refresh.
I’d be remiss for not mentioning that Kobo’s store features plenty of, um, “romance” literature as well. You know what I’m talking about – and a quick glance at all those beefcake covers shows just who that demographic is.
Perhaps the Kobo’s biggest killer feature – and it’s a really big one – is how versatile and friendly it is to reading formats. Kobos are compatible with just about every digital format out there, a huge list that includes: EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ and CBR. This means you’ll be able to sideload pretty much anything you want onto the Kobo, though you may have to convert one format to another first. This isn’t difficult and free software like Calibre and websites that get it done quickly.
Kobo readers also let you add more fonts to its library, which can help make books and documents look more authentic. I never played with this as I found the stock fonts more than readable, but options exist to modify and tweak fonts, margins and kerning justification to your heart’s content.
The Kobo Libra also offers full OverDrive support, which means access to local libraries content and more. Support your local libraries, people! You can even import web content via Pocket if you really want to. Honestly, griping about what Kobos can’t read or access, in comparison to Kindles, is really passe and tired. Just get to reading and enjoy yourself.
Kobo Software: Better Than Ever
Reading books and content on the Kobo Libra is pretty much what you’d expect, especially if you’ve ever used a Kobo (or Kindle) before. You’re able to page forward/back, long-press for quick dictionary definitions and Google/Wiki searches, highlight text, take notes and more. All great and expected, of course, as are the ability to add/subtract bookmarks, chapter jumps and search through your annotations.
Surprisingly, the Kobo’s software seems to have been updated significantly since we last played with it, at least under the hood. Response times between presses felt quicker and snappier this time around, as did looking up definitions or highlight long sentences. I wonder how much this is due to just better programming or how the Libra is pushing less pixels on a smaller screen than its larger Kobo Forma cousin. Either way, the experience is much nicer than it’s ever been.
Even better, there’s been substantial upgrades to how pages and your locations are displayed on the main reading pane, as well as faster page “scrubbing” (quickly blasting through pages without losing your original place), preview pages and a lot more.
Unfortunately, PDFs and image-heavy formats remain poor options to play on the Libra. Expect massive stuttering and janky performance on most PDFs files, and say goodbye to text and font options. While the Libra is capable of displaying this format – and usually displays it well once all information is loaded – navigating through them is unpleasant. Whenever possible, use another format other than PDFs when using the Libra.
Backlit, Blue Light Filtering and Waterproof
Like pretty much every other e-reader out there the Libra is fully backlit, meaning you can take your literary adventures into the darkest of places. And some pretty wet places, too, as there’s decent IPX8 rated waterproofing (up to one hour submerged in 2 meters/6 feet of freshwater). That’s also great news for accidental spills or getting caught in the rain – which probably happens more than most of you will admit.
The backlighting is, as we’ve come to expect from Kobo, clean and distributed evenly across the entire screen. Adjusting the brightness is readily available by swiping up/down on the left side of the screen or manually within the settings – super easy and super simple. There’s also Blue Light filtering via their trademarked ComfortLight Pro, a fancy way of saying you’re able to enable the mushy – but eyeball strain reducing – orange colored lighting as you see fit. Here you can adjust the filter’s intensity manually or schedule it to kick in at “bedtime”, whenever that is.
As for that waterproofing, to paraphrase the great Jeff Goldblum: just because you could doesn’t mean you should. Submerging the Libra in water can render it useless, especially in warm water (i.e. bathtubs). It should be stressed that “waterproofing” means protection against damage, not an extension of its functionality to visit Aquaman. Make sure to keep it clean and dry.
Audiobook Support: N/A
Once again a marquee Kobo reader ships without audiobook support, a glaring omission from a company that A.) has a sizeable – and always growing – store of audiobooks to choose from and B.) desperately needs to buttress the argument that Kobos offer real value against their pricier – and sometimes cheaper – Amazon competitors. The moment you start telling customers what a Kobo reader can’t do, that they’ll need a separate device (like a smartphone) to do what Kindle readers can, is when you start losing them.
Of course, the Libra H20 doesn’t have a dedicated headphone jack and there’s no way to pair a Bluetooth headset, speaker or other device to it, so it’s really a moot question. But Amazon has made native audiobook support (via Bluetooth) practically a base feature, even on their cheaper Kindle readers, so that’s one less feature the Libra can boast about. So if you’re all about ticking off feature checklists, that’s one the Libra misses.
But honestly? Listening to audiobooks on a Kindle e-reader is probably the least comfortable way to listen to audiobooks, and while the Libra is missing this feature, I’m not sure it’s really going to be missed all that much.
In Conclusion: It’s Just Right
The Kobo Libra H20 eReader feels special, in both design and function, and is easily one of the best e-readers I’ve ever used. What a difference a year can make, especially after what was, essentially, the worst Kobo reader (Forma). None of its best features come at the expense of its compromises, the reading experience has never been as fast or fluid, and the combination of its tapered-edge style and weight make it the most comfortable Kobo reader yet. Every feature you’d want is here, from backlighting, waterproofing and second-to-none compatibility outside Amazon’s digital dominion. Whether all those things will be enough to steer readers away from Amazon’s ever-expanding grip and their Kindle family remains to be seen, but the Libra H20 hits all the right buttons – literally.